NEW YORK — Rulon Gardner said he’s lost a little weight, but there’s still plenty of work ahead. He’d like to live to 80 years old, start a family and get his Olympic gold medal back.
In 2000, Gardner pulled off one of the great upsets in Olympic history, dethroning chiseled Russian Aleksander Karelin in the Greco-Roman super heavyweight wrestling final. Karelin, the three-time defending Olympic champion, hadn’t lost in international competition in 13 years nor given up a point in six.
Gardner since lost the middle toe on his right foot due to frostbite after being stranded in a 2002 snowmobile accident in his native Wyoming. He lived through a motorcycle accident and plane crash.
He went on “The Biggest Loser” at 474 pounds and attempted to lose more than 200 pounds to make weight for the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials at age 40. He reportedly said he got down to 280, missing the Olympic heavyweight limit of 264.5 and gained about 100 pounds back by June 2014, according to the Deseret News.
Since the Olympic trials, Gardner filed for bankrupty and parted with his 2000 Olympic gold medal and 2004 Olympic bronze medal among many other possessions.
On Thursday, Gardner dressed in a suit and tie to cover USA Wrestling’s “Beat the Streets” against Cuba in Times Square for NBCSN. He was stopped for autographs and pictures, unmistakable for he looked bigger than any of the wrestlers competing.
Gardner spoke with OlympicTalk before the meet:
OlympicTalk: You said during the winter you were doing wrestling training again to get back in shape and, last summer, that you would possibly go for the 2016 Olympic trials. How’s that going?
Gardner: I’m still going with, actually, a real good coach from Central High School in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a guy named Drew Severen [the school’s football coach]. I’ve been working out with him, training with him, kind of day-in, day-out, when I have time.
OlympicTalk: How many hours per day?
Gardner: I’m about an hour and a half. If I’m going to try to get back into healthy shape, wrestling shape, you’ve got to spend a good probably three to five hours a day in the wrestling room. Getting that time is hard to do, but if you’re going to get in shape and be a good wrestler, you’ve got to put the time in. Being an Olympic champion, I know I weigh too much now. I’ve got to get healthier and get my weight down.
OlympicTalk: What inspired you to return to wrestling training?
Gardner: I’m 43 years old now, and if I’m going to live to, hopefully, be 80 years old, I’ve got to get healthy. My wife [who has experience as a fitness and weight-loss instructor], she inspired me to work hard and get my weight down. We want to have a family. So, ultimately, for me to be around, and to stay on this earth for long enough, to have a family, I’ve got to get my weight down. So those are probably the biggest inspirations. But then ultimately, to be looked upon by youth wrestlers and that kind of stuff. I need to be a good ambassador of the sport. You’ve got to look the part of a wrestler, and you’ve got to act the part.
OlympicTalk: How realistic is it that you can make it to the Olympic trials?
Gardner: I just took a new position at my job. It’s still a thought out there. I don’t know how realistic it is at this point. At some point, you’ve got to take your career and run with it. If I don’t get on the mat to compete to win, I want to get on the mat to be healthy. At the end of the day, winning the Olympics is something that’s not even in my ideals. But to be healthy enough to make weight for the Olympics is really what I’m after most of all. If I ever did get [my weight] down, and I was able to spend the time and do it, I’d love to go to the Olympic trials. I don’t know if I’d be able to compete and win them, but I’d like to be able to at least be healthy enough to get there.
OlympicTalk: Have you lost weight? What do you weigh now?
Gardner: I’ve lost a little bit of weight, but most of my focus has been with my work. I’m a medical device rep, so I’m in the OR. I’m helping doctors. In a day, I’ll have like four or five surgeries. So you’re getting up at 4 a.m., doing cases all day and then coming back at night, you’re missing wrestling practice. You’ve got to have that discipline. Winter time, being in Wyoming, you don’t ever want to go outside for a run. Summer time, it’s always easier to get out and exercise, and I love being outside. I’ve started doing more of that, more of the running and the jogging. I’ve just got to be healthier and more active.
OlympicTalk: When was the last time you saw or spoke to Karelin?
Gardner: In Beijing [at the 2008 Olympics]. He actually was right in front of me for the whole 20 days of the Olympics [both doing TV work]. So I saw him every day. Just the intimidation factor of him walking in. We did an interview, and it was classic because even though he’s from Russia, he’s so smart, he’s so eloquent in everything he does. He speaks six languages. He was joking with us.
OlympicTalk: Jordan Burroughs is trying to repeat as Olympic champion with strong domestic competition, similar to what you went through in 2004. What do you think of him?
Gardner: I think he’s doing the right thing. He’s looking forward. He’s not looking back. Because once you start looking to see who’s biting at your heels, you start slowing down your acceleration. That’s the one thing about Jordan. I don’t think he’s ever taken the foot off the accelerator.
OlympicTalk: Do you still have your amputated toe?
Gardner: I actually have it in a bottle of formaldehyde. I have that in my refrigerator. People kind of get disgusted. They’re like, why do you have it? You know what, it’s a great reminder of me being irresponsible and foolish and stupid because I made a mistake. I didn’t have my correct gear. I wasn’t prepared to be in the mountains. When I look about being stupid and making bad decisions, I look at my toe, and it reminds me.
OlympicTalk: Are you trying to get your gold medal back?
Gardner: It was actually saved by an individual who actually had helped me out when I was on “The Biggest Loser.” He still has it. If I get another $20,000, I’ll have my gold medal back.
OlympicTalk: How much do you want it?
Gardner: I’m not complete without it. Everybody’s like, oh, the gold medal, it’s his only thing that matters. I have a lot of things that matter to me. I don’t have my Olympic rings and stuff. They sold those, but I don’t care about that stuff. The gold medal, that’s something that was really special to me because of who I beat.
OlympicTalk: You’ve given speeches to schools and kids. What’s the overall message?
Gardner: I talk about seven steps that I utilized in my life to overcome obstacles. I had a learning disability. I wasn’t supposed to go to college. I wasn’t supposed to go and graduate [he did, from Nebraska]. I wasn’t even supposed to go to the Olympics. I finally made the Olympic team in 2000, won the gold medal and accomplished that goal. I’ve continued to learn and gone through adversity. What do you do? You get back up. You have a bad test. You lose an athletic event. These young athletes, you get knocked down. What do you do? You get back up. Life is about obstacles and opportunity. For me, I looked at the match with Karelin as being an opportunity to reach my pinnacle. Some people might have thought about it as an obstacle for success. I thought it was an opportunity, turned it into a positive, won the match and won the Olympics. That’s all about how you perceive life. A lot of kids don’t believe in themselves. That’s the worst thing you can ever do.
Photos: U.S.-Cuba wrestling in Times Square